Saturday, June 27, 2009

CRASH! : Ballard, GM, & The Accursed Share

In light of the global recession and near collapse of "Government" Motors, I recently revisited J.G. Ballard's 1973 novel 'Crash'. Far from a trite, rock & roll fascination with sex, violence and death, Ballard's fiction pushes the spectacle to an extreme, his technical language tightly grafting desire and instinct onto flesh, wound, and steal, charting the unexplored possibilities of desire. Affectless and desensitized, the hyper-consumerist hungers for authenticity and liberation, defining itself -- not through production, utility, labour -- but through the squander of excess energy in new forms of experimentation, destruction and play ~~ shock therapy! Nothing symbolizes the luxury and excess of affluent consumer culture better than the American automobile -- speed, power, sex, aggression, death, it is all there -- and has been the driving force of the capitalist economy for decades. This legacy may be slowly grinding to a halt, as our global economy begins to break against the limits of capital, complexity, over-population, excessive consumption and the scarcity of natural resource.

Crash is a cautionary tale. Have we been moving too fast?

The following is a collection of imagery and thought related to the Ballardian universe; a chronological trajectory beginning with the death in 1927 of the mother of modern dance, Isadora Duncan, through examples of pop culture's fascination with the automobile as a vehicle of violence, to the sickening media frenzy surrounding the death of Princess Diana in an uncanny instance of "life imitates art", and terminating in the ritual sacrifice of the American automobile, the accursed share.

1927 CRASH! : Isadora Duncan

"Imagine then a dancer who, after long study, prayer and inspiration, has attained such a degree of understanding that his body is simply the luminous manifestation of his soul; whose body dances in accordance with a music heard inwardly, in an expression of something out of another, profounder world. This is the truly creative dancer; natural but not imitative, speaking in movement out of himself and out of something greater than all selves."
-- Isadora Duncan
"The Philosopher's Stone of Dancing, 1920"

"I spent long days and nights in the studio, seeking that dance which might be the divine expression of the human spirit through the medium of the body's movement. For hours I would stand quite still, my two hands folded between my breast, covering the solar plexus… I was seeking and finally discovered the central spring of all movement, the crater of motor power, the unity from which all diversions of movement are born, the mirror of vision for the creation of dance."
-- Isadora Duncan "My Life" 1928

"Duncan's fondness for flowing scarves which trailed behind her was the cause of her death in a freak automobile accident in Nice, France, on the night of September 14, 1927, at the age of 50 ... As The New York Times noted in its obituary of the dancer on September 15, 1927, 'Isadora Duncan, the American dancer, tonight met a tragic death at Nice on the Riviera. According to dispatches from Nice Miss Duncan was hurled in an extraordinary manner from an open automobile in which she was riding and instantly killed by the force of her fall to the stone pavement.' Other sources describe her death as resulting from strangulation, noting that she was almost decapitated by the sudden tightening of the scarf around her neck."
-- wikipedia

Isadora Duncan's death -- tragic, ironic, absurd -- echoes the Ballardian psyche; the deep anxiety underlying the fragility of the everyday, the thin veneer of a comfortable modern life, that can be shot through at any second by absurdity, violence, horror. The final, convulsive dance of an indifferent universe -- horrible, yet sublimely beautiful in its poetry -- with the sudden, unduly marriage of automobile steel, pavement, flesh, silk and speed.

"Affectations can be dangerous." -- Gertrude Stein
"Adieu, mes amis. Je vais à la gloire!" -- Isadora Duncan

1928 CRASH! : Histoire de l'Oeil

"The caress of the eye over the skin is so utterly, so extraordinarily gentle, and the sensation is so bizarre that it has something of a rooster's horrible crowing".
-- Histoire de l'Oeil

Working out of a Surrealist vein, and influenced by the eroticism of Marquis De Sade, Bataille's transgressive, pornographic novel explores eroticism and the juxtaposition of eros (creation, life, sex) and thanatos (death drive) through the increasingly "evil" transgression of taboo, sexual debauchery, and violent excess of its characters. Bataille discusses the catastrophe that is lived time:

"In the course of ecstatic vision, at the limit of death on the cross and of the blindly lived lamma sabachtani, the object is finally unveiled as catastrophe in a chaos of light and shadow, neither as God nor as nothingness, but as the object that love, incapable of liberating itself except outside of itself, demands in order to let out the scream of lacerated existence.
In this position of object as catastrophe, thought lives the annihilation that constitutes it as a vertiginous and infinite fall, and thus has not only catastrophe as its object; its very structure is catastrophe -- it is itself absorption in the nothingness that supports it and at the same time slips away. Something immense is liberated from all sides with the magnitude of a cataract, surging forth from unreal regions of the infinite, sinking into them in a movement of inconceivable force. The mirror that, in the crash of telescoping trains, suddenly slashes open one's throat is the expression of this imperative -- implacable -- but already annihilated irruption.
In common circumstance, time appears locked -- and practically annulled -- in each permanent form and in each succession that can be grasped as permanence. Each movement susceptible of being inscribed in an order annuls time, which is absorbed in a system of measure and equivalence -- thus time, having become virtually reversible, withers, and with time all existence.
However, burning love -- consuming the existence exhaled with great screams -- has no other horizon than a catastrophe, a scene of horror that releases time from its bonds.
Catastrophe -- lived time -- must be represented ecstatically not in the form of an old man, but as a skeleton armed with a scythe: a glacial and gleaming skeleton, to whose teeth adhere the lips of a severed head. As skeleton it is completed destruction, but armed destruction amounting to imperative purity."
-- from Sacrifices by Georges Bataille

As did Ballard of Crash, Bataille refers to his work as 'a warning':

"It says there is a danger, but maybe once you realize the danger, you have good reasons for confronting that danger. And I think it is important for us to confront the danger that is literature. I think it is a very great and real danger, but that you are not a man if you do not confront that danger. And I think that in literature, we can see the human perspective in its entirety, because literature doesn't permit us to live without seeing human nature under its most violent aspect. You only have to think of the tragedies of Shakespeare ... And finally, it's literature that makes it possible for us to perceive the worst, and learn how to confront it, how to overcome. In short, a man who plays finds in the game the force to overcome what the game contains of horror".
-- Georges Bataille

At the close of Ballard's short story "The Terminal Beach", the protagonist Traven, sits the found corpse of a deceased Japanese man upright in a chair, an image echoing Bataille's glacial skeleton of catastrophe, a confrontation with and affirmation of loss:

"As the next days passed into weeks, the dignified figure of the Japanese sat in his chair fifty yards from him, guarding Traven from the blocks. Their magic still filled Traven's reveries, but now he had sufficient strength to rouse himself and forage for food. In the hot sunlight the skin of the Japanese became more and more bleached, and sometimes Traven would wake at night to find the white sepulchral figure sitting there, arms resting at its sides, in the shadows that crossed the concrete floor. At these moments he would often see his wife and son watching him from the dunes. As time passed they came closer, and he would sometimes turn to find them only a few yards behind him. Patiently Traven waited for them to speak to him, thinking of the great blocks whose entrance was guarded by the seated figure of the dead archangel, as the waves broke on the distant shore and the burning bombers fell through his dreams."
-- from The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard

1955, September 30. CRASH! : James Dean

"James Dean in addition to his acting took up competitive race car driving. While James Dean was filming Rebel Without a Cause, he acquired a Porsche 550 Spyder. The car which would become part of the legend was one of only 90 Porsche Sypders, it was numbered 130, had a tartan seat design along with two red stripes at the rear. The car was called "Little Bastard". A week before his was killed James Dean met the British actor Alec Guinness who commented car appeared "sinister" and said to Dean : "If you get in that car you will be found dead in it by this time next week." Words that would prove to be prophetic."
-- Wikipedia

1960, January 4. CRASH! : Albert Camus

Albert Camus dies in an automobile accident. "In his coat pocket lay an unused train ticket. It is possible that he had planned to travel by train, but decided to go by car instead."
-- Wikipedia

"What still had meaning for Camus is that despite humans being subjects in an indifferent and "absurd" universe, in which meaning is challenged by the fact that we all die, meaning can be created, however provisionally and unstably, by our own decisions and interpretations."
-- Wikipedia

"At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face."
-- Albert Camus

1962–63 Green Car CRASH! : Andy Warhol

"Death and Disaster series offered a prognosis of today’s cult of the self ... Green Car Crash (or Green Burning Car I) is based upon what is arguably the most extraordinary, strange and disturbing source image of all the paintings in Warhol’s Death and Disaster series. The original photograph was taken by photographer John Whitehead and inserted, apparently arbitrarily, into an article on racial integration that appeared in the June 3rd issue of Newsweek Magazine in 1963. The caption that accompanied the photograph in the magazine described the photograph and the scene that it recorded as follows: “End of the Chase: Pursued by a state trooper investigating a hit-and-run accident, commercial fisherman Richard J. Hubbard, 24, sped down a Seattle street at more than 60 mph, overturned, and hit a utility pole. The impact hurled him from the car, impaling him on a climbing spike. He died 35 minutes later in hospital.

The scene, as it is depicted in Warhol’s painting, is a tediously dull suburban street that has been instantaneously transformed into an almost surrealistic nightmare, in which an overturned car in flames is shown in the foreground while the catapulted body of the driver can be seen hanging, although still alive, impaled on a post.

The image becomes even more morbid when one observes that there is a figure at the heart of the picture, a man with hands in his pockets, passing by devoid of any concern, seemingly oblivious to the actual that is hell breaking out just on the other side of the sidewalk. Some have described it as being like something from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks or Blue Velvet, where the charming and banal aura of a suburban community is shown to be nothing more than the tenuously compensatory defense of a shallow, seemingly respectable surface beneath which lurks the darker reality of eternal horror.

Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I) reveals this disconnect in the world of appearances. The extraordinary contrast between the mundane normality of everyday suburbia versus the exceptional tragedy and violence that periodically strikes at its heart is exactly what Warhol wanted to convey to us, expressed through what one might characterize as a schizoid detachment in the Death and Disaster series. In effect, for the careful observer Warhol doubles the underlying sense of horror in everyday life by expressing its banality without any sense of shock or dismay, but rather in a tone of utterly banal solitude.

In addition to showing Warhol’s preoccupation with what some might describe as the morbid underbelly of realizing the fleeting aspect of life, or of acknowledging the real sense of our own mortality, the Death and Disaster series also presents Warhol’s razor-sharp criticism of the moral complacency that middle-class America had stumbled into by the 1960’s. In his own almost incomparable way, Warhol, who was once described as “a rather terrifying oracle,” now has come to be understood by many observers as holding up a deeply percipient mirror, shattering the illusory American dream mercilessly ...

Green Car Crash ended up going for more than double the predicted auction price, selling on May 16th at Christie’s in New York City for $71. 7 Million."
-- Green Car Crash: Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster Series

1973 CRASH! : novel by J.G. Ballard

"Is it possible, I asked myself, if perhaps, far from being unhealthy, this interest in violence is a good thing. Is it possible that maybe the car crash is liberating in some way, it may be that human beings need violence? Maybe, their imaginations are switched on by violence? Maybe, our ancestry as hunting creatures, the human race being incredible bloodthirsty in its history, the history of the human race is the history of blood, it may be that violence, and in particular violence created by technology, the technology of the car, maybe this is liberating, maybe this opens the mental doors to a new world. So I thought, I'll write a book in which I say car crashes are good, car crashes are sexually fulfilling, and then see what happens!"
-- J.G. Ballard

"Throughout Crash I have used the car not only as a sexual image, but as a total metaphor for man's life in today's society ... Needless to say, the ultimate role of Crash is cautionary, a warning against that brutal, erotic and overlit realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of the technological landscape." -- J.G. Ballard

*Warning! The following video for "Warm Leatherette" by Daniel Miller based on the novel "Crash" is graphic and disturbing:

CRASH! : Pop Cinema, the Automobile, and "Gratuitous" Violence

"Crash upset a great many people ... the strange thing is, at the same time, there was nothing that people liked more than seeing films about car crashes. At the time I wrote Crash, around 1971-72, every Hollywood film had a car crash. But by the 70s people I think were a little bored with sex, and the new sex was violence. People were fascinated by violence." -- J.G. Ballard

"Duel is a 1971 television movie about a motorist (played by Dennis Weaver) on a remote and lonely road being stalked by a large tanker truck and its almost unseen driver. It was the first feature film directed by Steven Spielberg and was written by Richard Matheson based on his own short story ... Spielberg observes that the fear of the unknown is perhaps the greatest fear of all and that Duel plays heavily to that fear ... Spielberg says that the effect of not seeing the driver makes the real villain of the film the truck itself, rather than the driver.
-- wikipedia

The Great American Car Crash (Grindhouse style)

"1986 : Stephen King directs "Maximum Overdrive", and is nominated for "Worst Director" by the Golden Raspberry Awards in 1987. King himself described the film as a "moron movie" and stated his intention to never direct again soon after."
-- wikipedia

"June 19, 1999: Stephen King was struck by a Dodge Caravan minivan while walking along the shoulder of Route 5 outside North Lovell in western Maine. The driver of the minivan had been distracted by his dog when he swerved off the road and hit King, who sustained serious injuries that kept him hospitalized for several months. King had multiple fractures in his right leg and hip, a collapsed lung, broken ribs, and a scalp laceration. After six operations in 2 1/2 months, he would require at least a year of physical therapy before he could walk at 85% of his old strength."
-- wikipedia

1994 !: Quentin Tarantino "Pulp Fiction"

1996! : David Cronenberg "Crash"

"What do you think of Cronenberg’s Crash?

It’s alright — but I’m not a big fan. It takes itself way too seriously, for instance, and ends up just boring the shit out of everyone. I think it was miscast, badly paced, and not explicit enough about its themes. As it is, the movie appears to be about a bunch of dull and uninteresting Canadians who get into a car accident one day and end up wife-swapping. Yet, having said that, the movie isn’t funny at all." -- Geoff Manaugh

1997 CRASH! : David Lynch "Lost Highway"

2007 CRASH!: Quentin Tarantino "Death Proof"

1991 CRASH! : Jean Baudrillard "Ballard's Crash"

"I feel that the balance between fiction and reality has changed significantly in the past decade. Increasingly their roles are reversed. We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind -- mass merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the instant translation of science and technology into popular imagery, the increasing blurring and intermingling of identities within the realm of consumer goods, the preempting of any free or original imaginative response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. For the writer in particular it is less and lass necessary for him to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer's task is to invent the reality."
-- J.G. Ballard

"In Crash, there is neither fiction nor reality—a kind of hyper-reality has abolished both. Even critical regression is no longer possible. This mutating and commutating world of simulation and death, this violently sexualized world totally lacking in desire, full of violent and violated bodies but curiously neutered, this chromatic and intensely metallic world empty of the sensorial, a world of hyper-technology without finality—is it good or bad? We can’t say. It is simply fascinating, without this fascination implying any kind of value judgment whatsoever. And this is the miracle of Crash. The moral gaze—the critical judgmentalism that is still a part of the old world’s functionality—cannot touch it. Crash is hypercritical, in the sense of being beyond the critical."
-- Jean Baudrillard "Ballard’s Crash"

1997 CRASH! : Diana Princess of Wales

By far the most disturbing; the image of the twisted, black wreck, hanging in the air, a cadaver of modernity, literally gave me nightmares...

"If sex, death and technology were ever compacted into one object, this would be it." -- Pat Kane from The Herald

"We live in a culture that routinely eroticizes and glamorizes its consumer technology, notably the motorcar. We also live in the Age of Fame, in which the intensity of our gaze upon celebrity turns the famous into commodities, too -- a transformation that has often proved powerful enough to destroy them. Ballard's novel, by bringing together these two erotic fetishes -- the Automobile and the Star -- in an act of sexual violence (a car crash), created an effect so shocking as to be thought obscene ...

In Diana's fatal crash, the Camera (as both Reporter and Lover) is joined to the Automobile and the Star, and the Cocktail of death and desire becomes even more powerful than one in Ballard's book ...

The battle is for control; for a form of power. She did not wish to give the photographers power over her -- to be merely their (our) Object. In escaping from the pursuing lenses, she was asserting her determination, perhaps her right, to be something altogether more dignified: that is, to be a Subject. Fleeing from Object to Subject, from commodity toward humanity, she met her death."
-- Salman Rushdie from the New Yorker

"There are no iconic figures today. I wish there were! I would right about them! I think Princess Di was the last iconic figure, and she died in a car crash, in a big Mercedes in a Paris underpass. She died the classical iconic death; the death in the car crash. She is the last one."
-- J.G. Ballard

2009, June 1 CRASH! : General Motors Chapter 11

"For years, we were obsessed with her stylish, shapely body; her lean, aerodynamic curves; her tight, taut lines. But as time went by, we grew bored and she grew complacent. And in recent years, GM all but completely let herself go— continuously losing market share to a barrage of suitors who weren’t afraid to appeal to our vanity. And it certainly didn’t help that she was going through money like it was going out of style."
-- The Disgruntled Dylanologist

"It took the extremity of the economic crisis for consumers to begin to deconstruct the myths and reclaim our independence. Americans are now seeing their cars not as the emblem of their socio-economic rise but an unsustainable encumbrance ... The "need" for three cars and the reasonableness of driving 15,000 miles a year are being challenged ... So with the economic crash has come a visible crash of the car industry ... Televised scenes of smoldering auto carcasses in the desert reveal only the smoke: the fire is the unsustainable car system combusting. As an object of reverence and desire, the meteor of excess, the American auto has come down to earth."
-- Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez "Car crash: The death of the American auto"

2008 CRASH! : Superflex "Burning Car"

"[Death] ... reveals nothing In order for Man to reveal himself ultimately to himself he would have to die, but he would have to do it while living -- watching himself ceasing to be ... In sacrifice, the sacrificer identifies himself with the animal that is struck down dead. And so he dies in seeing himself die" -- Georges Bataille

1 comment:

  1. I had a weird obsession with grindhouse flicks when I was in college and especially liked watching them with an audience. At a certain point, they escape conventional standards of good and bad and become a pure, one of a kind experience. You really do get a rush off of how unbound they are by realism or taste, especially when they get violent.

    My favorite is still this flick from the early 80's called Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker. It has a car crash scene that I've never been able to forget:

    When I saw this with an audience, we had no idea what was going to happen next and the sheer excess of it all, the way it piled one absurdity after another, was thrilling. This video unfortunately cuts out the best part, when the car explodes for no reason at the end, after a moment of quiet. There was actually spontaneous applause in the theater.